In Your Words: Mushers gather, share skills in Greenland
Greenland! It never ever entered my mind that someday I would be going to Greenland. But I have and here's our story.
It all started a few years ago when I got invited to the Nahdezda (Hope) Sled dog race in Chukotka, Russia. Mille Porsild a very good friend of ours and the partner to Joar Ulsom of Norway had asked me if I had wanted to go. Of course I wanted to go! What's it going to cost me? Ten grand ... OK ... We'll see if we can raise some money. She had read about me doing one of my trips across Alaska from Nenana to Kotzebue.
So she calls me and asked if I would be interested in going to Greenland for a dog mushing symposium. I was needed to represent the Native dog mushers of Alaska. My job would be to build a traditional sled that would later be put in a museum in Sisimiut, Greenland. I said, what's it going to cost me? She says not very much. They can't pay you but will put you up with a host family. You will get your airfare taken care of though and the hotel paid for in Copenhagen since you'll have to overnight there. Let's do it. We needed one other musher to come over and help me with building a sled. I contacted a few musher friends of mine but couldn't find one with a passport. Time was of essence ... we needed someone very quickly. I ended up submitting my daughter Bailey's name and she got selected!
Off to Greenland we went. It was a very long trip. We ended up having to go from Seattle to Rahjavnik, Iceland. From there to Copenhagen, Denmark, over nighting and then the next day back to Iceland and then to Sisimiut via Kangerlussuaq, Greenland.
We were met by Pipaluk Logstup and our host's Jan and Johanne. Jan being Danish and Johanne being Inuit. The first thing that struck me was, as we were flying there from Copenhagen, the announcements on the flight were in Inuit, Danish and then English. When we got to Sisimiut everyone spoke Inuit. The announcements in the terminal were Inuit, the radio in the car was in Inuit.
The little kids with the parents at the terminal and on the flight spoke Inuit. The majority of people I was to meet in the next few days had Inuit names. The stores and businesses announcements were all in Inuit. When we came to our host families home and Jan turned on the TV the news station was done in Inuit. Wow! I was blown away, especially coming from a place where Inupiaq is a second language amongst the indigenous people of Alaska.
We did our sled building at the local trade school college. This was in a part of the carpentry shop. Everything we needed would be provided to us. Our hosts at the tech school were awesome. The man cutting all of our materials would be Erik. So the first morning there I meet Erik and gave him some measurements for various parts of my sled while I went and made some jigs and benders for the basket sled. No one had any idea of what I was about to create because they had never seen a basket sled before. Anyway, Bailey and I get back to the work bench and I'm wondering why I didn't see any cut materials around our work bench.
There were a bunch of little scrap looking pieces laying in the recessed top of the bench. I looked at them ... the width and thickness looked like what I might need but they were all to small. What the heck? It then dawned on me that when I gave the measurements to Erik he had cut everything in centimeters and not inches. We had a very good laugh about it all so Erik and myself went back to cut the proper length pieces. A very humorous start to our week of building.
We did not have a steam box to do all of our bending with so I laminated the runners. This may not have been very traditional but it insures that the runner will never lose it's bend. John and Erik made a steam box that worked very well for bending the rest of the sled pieces. The most time consuming part of the project was all the lashing that had to be done as I was going to build a basket sled without bolts. I had some help from the Russian boys during the last two days of building as they were completed with their sled. I taught them the basics of lashing and had them do their thing. It was a lot of fun. We spent Monday through Friday afternoon from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. attempting to finish our sleds. Saturday was to be the symposium. On Sunday morning at noon we were to try the sleds out with some Greenlandic dogs. That was a lot of fun! Our sleds went into the dog mushing museum in Sisimiut.
At the symposium we had speakers from different agencies. The minister of culture, the mayor of Sisimiut and a DNA research team each spoke about the importance of cultural and traditional uses of dogs and how important the dog had been to the survival of the indigenous peoples of the Arctic. There are a lot of people just in Sisimiut that have and use dogs for subsistence activities and also for tourism. Tourism seems to be a viable resource because of the geographic location of Greenland being somewhat close to Denmark and the rest of Europe.
I saw one major problem, just in Sisimiut, with having dogs and that was you could not park the dogs in you're yard. There was a designated area right outside of the city. Very similar problems with most towns in Alaska. This creates a number of problems. You end up with an animal that doesn't have a lot of interaction with people therefore becoming a bit wilder. You have dog fights because of this and you also have a lot of accidental breeding. Dogs need supervision and interaction with owners. My suggestion to them was ... people create rules and regulations so people can change them.
I had a very difficult time attempting to convince the participants of what the situation was in Alaska as far as utilization of the dog team in a cultural and traditional sense. I did not have concrete data as to the population of mushers and dogs within the northern part of the state so I gave my best guesstimate of memory. Growing up as a kid, before snowmobiles came along, just about every other family in Kotzebue owned at least 10 to 20 dogs. Kotzebue at the time had a population of at least a thousand people. It was the same in the villages because of the fact that the dogs were the mode of transportation. If you didn't have them you simply could not survive. They were used for hauling wood, getting water or ice for drinking. They were also used for trapping and most importantly for hunting and fishing. They were a hearty breed of dog that could survive in the harsh elements. The dogs did not require special care or even a dog house. You not only had to keep them fed but had to keep your family fed. So as of 1965 I would say that just within the Northern part of the state the Inupiaq had and owned 30,000 dogs.
By 1975, there might have been 5,000 dogs. The snowmobile had taken over. By 1985 the number had dwindled to about a thousand dogs. During this time the purpose of the dogs began to change also. The few hardy souls that kept dogs had started breeding them for racing. Sprint racing began to attract a lot of mushers from the village. There was also a lot of interest within the urban areas as well with the biggest races held in the state. Lon- distance racing was in it's infancy but would soon blossom in the 1980s.
Little did anyone realize that this transition would have a huge impact on what the "Husky" was to become. Racers in the urban areas began breeding the Husky to various breeds of hounds to make a faster, well-built dog. Soon the village racers couldn't compete and started breeding the village dogs to hounds also. This breeding also lead to the long-distance mushing community to create a super dog that was fine-boned, well-proportioned and didn't have as much fur as the original Alaska Husky. The "new" dog would not be able to survive in the harsh climate of the north any longer. Now you needed a doghouse for them, annual shots for different domestic diseases, booties, coats, leggings and various other important things.
By state regulations you could no longer feed wild meats to you're animals so now you had to buy a good commercial kibble for them. The point being is now you have made a super dog but the maintenance of the animal increased tenfold. We have been basically decimating the Alaska Husky without even realizing the consequences. Racing has given the interpretation of "the dog" a whole new meaning to the indigenous people of Alaska.
The reason that it was difficult to explain at the symposium was the Greenlandic mushers and participants from Canada and Chukotka assumed that mushing in Alaska was the same. Once they realized what I was trying to say then things got a bit smoother. They had no clue whatsoever about how drastic this change can be especially in a traditional and cultural sense.
This new information hopefully had given some insight to participants of the symposium of what they do not want to become. The simple fact is the Greenlandic Inuit know what the importance of the Greenlandic husky means to them and are taking huge strides for the preservation of the husky and the importance in a traditional and cultural sense. They are a people that realize that they would not have survived without the Greenlandic husky and are taking measures to insure it remains a viable part of their culture. This in itself is unique because of the fact that here at home our people have not taken any steps to insure that preserving the Alaska Husky is an important part of their culture. I believe that the "racing mentality" has basically turned "off" most people's minds in association with the husky. Now it is my job to get the "traditional" interpretation back in the minds and take steps to insure that we don't lose this vitally important part of our culture. It is also important to reintroduce true Alaska huskies back into the culture and to teach the younger generations not only how important this animal was to us but also being able to actually use the husky for hunting and fishing.
Bailey and I enjoyed our trip to Greenland. We enjoyed the association with other members of our Arctic people and of course the people of Sisimiut and their hospitality.
Chuck Schaeffer is a musher and traditional sled builder. He was born and raised in Kotzebue and now lives in the Susitna Valley.